How to Use Stress to Your Advantage

I eat when I’m anxious.


Stress is one of the main reasons my overweight lawyer clients tell me they overeat. As a certified weight loss coach, I define overeating as eating for any reason other than to fuel your body.


I often went to the kitchen to see what sugary/floury treats I could find or reached into my desk for my secret stash of chocolate when pressure escalated. Like when a difficult client demands you work all weekend recreating trial strategy because previous to that moment, they neglected to disclose all relevant facts. The weekend you promised your kids you’d go glamping.


Times like these I feel my stomach churn. Sugar and sometimes wine often felt like a way to soothe myself. It was my reward and relief for a stressful day.


It turns out there are positive aspects of stress you can tap into simply by shifting the way you think.


According to psychologist and author Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., who wrote The Upside of Stress, there are three types of stress response: threat or challenge, tend and befriend, and growth.


1. Threat or challenge is the fight or flight response.


You see a tiger, someone cutting into the parking spot you’d been waiting for when you’re late for court, or opposing counsel gets personally and unprofessionally aggressive. You experience a surge of the hormone cortisol.


Your heart beats faster. Your breath quickens. You may sweat. Your shoulders and jaw may tighten. You may have the impulse to flee or attack. Your blood vessels constrict, a response associated with heart disease.


Let’s say you’re invited to an impromptu birthday party, but you’ve already told yourself you wouldn’t have any sweets today. You’re out with friends and someone has brought chocolate cake from your favorite bakery.


If you think about this situation and worry you won’t be able to stick to your plan, perhaps even beating yourself up for having a history of no willpower, you increase your anxiety throughout the meal, adding to your stress. Maybe causing you to want cake even more.


The good part about flight or flight is your body getting ready to do something. To rise to the occasion. To meet a challenge. To focus and execute. It helps us perform in court or at an important client meeting, or to stretch to solve a problem.


Harvard Business School Professor Amy Cuddy found women who stand in the super woman pose—hands on hips, feet spread apart—prior to an interview, performed better and were perceived better.


It would be interesting to try this stance not only before starting a challenging day, but also going into a situation where we’d normally overeat and had decided to eat only until satisfied.


If you connect the fast heartrate and panicky feeling with your body’s way of getting you ready to meet the challenge, you can remind yourself it’s biology’s way of helping you prepare and focus.


You can use nervous energy to anticipate having the urge to overeat and plan how you’ll handle it.


2. The second type of stress response involves release of oxytocin, the feel-good cuddle hormone.


It gets us primed to care for and connect with others.


We see this when communities come together after a disaster, or when domestic violence survivors attend therapy or a support group.


Some studies show how long you live is directly related to your amount of social connection, possibly due to oxytocin.


Increasing social support can have a positive impact on quality of life and our ability to deal with trials without using food to comfort ourselves.


If you’ve decided not to overeat at an event, you might utilize this advantage by sharing with your companion your reason for selecting healthy options and asking for support.


3. The third stress response is growth.


Stress primes and pushes us to learn.


I had a client who wanted to stop overeating so she could lose weight and play with her children without getting tired. She worried as they got older they would no longer want to spend as much time with her and she would have lost the opportunity to be an active part of their childhood.


Her worry prompted her to seek help. She loved her kids and was motivated more for them than for herself. This drove her to find support and learn new strategies.


You might think of a week without sweets as a growth opportunity and the chance to practice being in the moment while being present. In this way, you focus on long-term benefits of weight loss and acquiring the skill of experiencing negative emotion without overeating.


The next time you’re feeling stressed, look for ways to focus on its positive aspects. Rise to the challenge, get support and find solutions.    


It’s your advantage.


—Julie Ernst, Esq., Certified Weight Loss Coach. Visit for my free video course: 3 Things You Must Know to Lose Weight.

Julie Ernst